My dad’s birthday is this week, and with Father’s Day just behind us, I’ve been thinking about his impact on who I am today. Without a doubt, one of the most valuable things he taught me is how to eat vegetables. He did such a great job, I don’t remember not liking them!
I do remember my dad’s vegetable garden in our Central Valley backyard. I remember laughing with my sister when he would say, “Girls, I’m going to go watch the corn grow,” as he headed outside to tend to his plants on summer evenings.
Sometimes he would pick a ripe, red tomato, wipe it on his shirt, and take a big, juicy bite. “Better than candy,” he’d say, proud of the “fruit” of his labor. (Couldn’t resist the “dad joke!”) With this A+ role modeling, how could I not be a veggie lover?
Teaching our kids how to fuel their bodies with nutritious food, like my dad did for me, is truly the greatest gift we can give them as we help them develop into independent young adults. It’s so important I’m devoting my first blog post ever to this topic!
7 Tips to Help Kids Eat Vegetables
Let’s dive right into some practical strategies and mindset tools that will help you be successful in raising veggie-eating kids!
1. Build on what’s going well.
Offer vegetables your kids already like in new, creative ways and combine them with new veggies, perhaps in a salad or soup. Increase portions of vegetables they will eat.
If your kids aren’t vegetable fans yet, they probably like French fries and ketchup. Am I right? Call that a start and upgrade to healthier options like roasted or air fryer potatoes (or sweet potatoes) and tomato sauces in pasta dishes and soups.
Move on to sweet vegetables like corn and carrots that kids are typically more open to trying. In general, vegetables get sweeter and more palatable when cooked, particularly when sautéed and roasted. Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus may be better received at first when prepared this way.
2. Explain why it matters.
Children are more likely to change their behavior when they understand the reasons for change in language they understand. Instead of simply saying vegetables are “good for you,” call them “grow foods.”
- Carrots and other orange and yellow veggies support eye health and are “see far” foods.”
- Foods like celery, beets, arugula, and watermelon increase blood flow and are “run fast” foods.
- Spinach and peas, high in protein, are “get strong” foods.
- Foods rich in Vitamin C, such as bell peppers and broccoli, boost the immune system and are “stay healthy” foods.
- All vegetables are packed with fiber, thus are “regular bowel movement” foods. (If this will motivate your child, offer it in age-appropriate terms, perhaps away from the dinner table!)
3. Get creative.
As you are encouraging your child to get excited about vegetables, behind the scenes you can “hide” them in recipes.
A handful of spinach or kale blends undetected into smoothies. Just doing this one thing a few days a week would be a great start!
Pureed soups and sauces are a great way to hide bell peppers, onions, celery, and other veggies. (This trick works with store bought soups and sauces, too!) Entire cookbooks are dedicated to this concept.
Play the “eat the rainbow” game and have kids choose a different color vegetable for every night of the week. If a child doesn’t like a vegetable cooked try it raw, and vice versa.
Kids love dipping their veggies! Try serving a vegetable tray as an after school snack alongside hummus, ranch dressing, salsa, guacamole, cheese dips…whatever will get veggies in their bellies. Celery filled with peanut butter is a classic, crunchy combo that kids may enjoy.
4. Get kids involved.
Younger children especially love to help. Older kids might need more coaxing. It’s worth the effort to show up with your best parenting skills to get them on board.
Include kids in family meal planning, grocery shopping (when COVID-19 times are over), food preparation and cooking. Simply by being asked to participate in decision-making they will gain confidence as well as valuable life skills.
In the kitchen, assign kids age-appropriate tasks: stirring or measuring for younger children and for older kids supervised chopping and tending of pots and pans on the stove.
Quality time together in the kitchen creates connection and positive emotions that carry over to mealtime. If school nights are hectic, try starting with a more relaxed weekend meal.
5. Be a role model.
Children watch the grown-ups in their world for cues on who to be and how to live. If you are eating your vegetables kids are likely to model your behavior.
Saying things like, “Our family values healthy food,” or “Health is our most important asset,” and linking those statements to eating vegetables helps children assimilate healthy food choices into their identity.
If vegetables aren’t your favorite thing, you can join your kids on their adventure and explore the wonderful world of veggies together. They will be inspired that you are trying, too.
6. Stay connected to your “why.”
If progress comes slowly or you encounter difficulty along the way, you’ll be more resilient and able to push through frustration or disappointment if you lean into your “why.” In those moments remember that your goal is to empower your children with the skills and values they need to be self-sufficient, capable, thriving young people you, and they, can be proud of.
Accept from the start that you may need to offer a new vegetable many times (10-15) before a child is willing to embrace it.
Praise your child for their effort/courage/attitude, etc. when they taste a new vegetable, no matter the result, even if it’s politely rejecting the food into a napkin.
If your child declines the offer to try something new, assure them that it’s okay they aren’t ready. Then begin plotting your next move. Don’t give up until you’ve prepared a vegetable several times, multiple ways.
Continue to experiment with a variety of vegetables, cooking methods, and recipes and eventually your child will find something they like. Their confidence around trying new things will increase.
Forcing children to try any food that is unappealing fails to honor their autonomy and is counterproductive. If you’re using the tips I’ve shared, eventually you will see your child’s list of approved veggies grow.
What not to do
Comparison and competition
Resist the temptation to point out to a child struggling to eat their vegetables a sibling’s or another child’s success. Instead, ask the sibling or peer what they like most about a particular vegetable or what motivated them to try it.
If sibling rivalry shows up at the dinner table gently remind the child claiming superiority that each of us is unique and does things at our own pace. If the mood is right, ask the child to name something their sibling excels at to get some positivity flowing.
Punishment and rewards
Punishing a child for failing to eat their vegetables will likely result in resentment and further resistance.
Rewards may change behavior, however your child who is willing to reluctantly eat their vegetables in exchange for a reward, likely won’t be if the reward is removed.
If a small non-food reward to recognize effort or attitude could help get the ball rolling, consider allowing the child to redeem their reward at a time in the future, not immediately after the meal.
What about dessert? If a child isn’t hungry enough to try their vegetables they probably don’t need dessert. If you do offer dessert, consider fresh fruit over sugary foods, which mute the taste buds and contribute to kids’ inability to appreciate the subtle natural sugars in vegetables.
How many vegetables does my child need?
Aim for the following amounts per day. (Based on USDA MyPlate guidelines.)
- Ages 2-3: 1 cup
- Ages 4-8: 1.5 cups
- Ages 9-13: 2 cups (girls) 2.5 cups (boys)
- Ages 14-18: 2.5 cups (girls) 3 cups (boys)
Note: 1 cup of raw greens (lettuce, spinach, kale, etc.) is equivalent to .5 cup.
If lunch, dinner, and snacks include vegetables these amounts are easily achieved. Bonus points for green smoothies or veggie egg or tofu scrambles at breakfast!
Remember: progress not perfection
I hope these tips are helpful! Choose the ideas that work best for you and your family. Remember…no win is too small to celebrate, and progress not perfection is the goal. You can do it!
I encourage you to take a moment to write down one small action you can take. (As my dad used to say, “There’s no time like the present!”)
I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas! Please leave a comment or question below!